When I was in high school, I briefly joined the forensics team, thinking I might enjoy public speaking. I wanted to try my hat at impromptu speaking, but when the day of the competition came around, I found a more comfortable place tucked nicely away reading short story. I also re-joined the dance team (poms) year after year where literally every half beat of music was choreographed. No impromptu speaking or soccer tryouts for me.
In college I took exactly one philosophy course...and had a tough time expanding my arguments and thinking up alternative ones in response to the assignment prompts.
And when you, my friend, ask me difficult questions about my faith and Christianity, I tend to stutter through a response. I can tell that my answers fall short from satisfying your inquiries, such as, how can Christians claim to follow Jesus and yet act so despicably? How can a loving God allow suffering? Later, I mull over what I wish I had said in the moment.
She figures you have questions, and she’s more than willing to answer them. Given that Christianity is (for now) still the world’s largest religion, she argues that,
“No matter what we currently believe, we must all confront Christianity: the most widespread belief system in the world, with the most far-reaching intellectual footprint, and a wealth of counterintuitive wisdom concerning how humans should thrive.” (31)
Here, as is her style throughout the book, she backs up her assertions with a quote from a well-known professor:
“Any educated person should, at some point, have critically examined the claims for Christianity and should be able to explain why he or she does, or does not, believe them,” said Tyler VanderWheele, Harvard professor and “world expert on the mental and physical benefits of religion participation.” (31)
What stood out to me?
Take chapter two: "Doesn’t Christianity Crush Diversity?"
For several years now, I have helped lead a Christian after school club at my children’s school. (You can review our lesson plans here on my blog.) On one occasion as I taught the week’s lesson, I looked out at my audience and realized that not only was I the only native-born American adult present, I was a white American looking out on a whole lot of colorful faces. I panicked and worried that I might be repeating the mistakes of imperial proselytisers from the not too distant past. (And you yourself worried that I was alienating white non-Christians and Muslims.) No one was coerced in any way to attend this after school club, but I needed to do something to evaluate the best place for me in the group. One by one, privately, I asked the other parents if they were interested in leading a lesson. Some said yes. Most said no. In the end, everyone contributed according to his or her preferences. They all reaffirmed my place as “lead teacher” and so the group went on.
But Rebecca provides the greatest reassurance for me in her chapter on diversity. She explains how “the Christian movement was multicultural and mutiethnic from the outset”. (35) Rebecca reminds us that Africans first received Christianity in the first century, via an educated man from Ethiopia who was converted by the apostle Phillip. She points out that “one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world” is in Iraq. (38) She provides examples from many cultures around the globe, concluding that, “most of the world’s Christians are neither white nor Western, and Christianity is getting less white Western by the day. This is partly thanks to the missionary activities of non-Westerners.” (43) I felt hit over the head by my own blindness as she revealed through page after page of stories how “our habit of equating Christianity with Western culture is itself an act of Western bias.” (45)
But back to you for a moment. One of the questions you (you, the doubter, you, the atheist), often ask me is, how can Christians commit such terrible crimes in the name of God?
In chapter five "Doesn’t Religion Cause Violence?", Rebecca describes stomach-twisting examples of major religions practicing violence against others. She doesn’t excuse any of it, but she points out that no one is immune to sin. In terms of Christianity, how can people claim to follow Jesus and commit such atrocities? She offers two reasons. First, that many so-called Christians aren’t authentic followers of Jesus. And second, that Christians are made of no stronger moral stuff than anyone else and so are prone to sin just like everyone else. Thank God we have Jesus to show us forgiveness. We can only strive to show forgiveness to each other in the same way.
In terms of one so-called Christian who mutilated Jesus’s teachings, I have to highlight what Rebecca taught me about Hitler.
Did you know that “rather than rejecting Christianity outright, the Nazis endorsed what they called “Positive Christianity,” changing the Bible to fit their ends”? (83) They deleted the Old Testament, removed any hint of Jesus’s Jewish identity (making him Aryan), and revised passages that spoke of compassion for the weak. The Lord’s prayer was rewritten to address the Fuhrer, rather than our Father in Heaven. Rebecca fleshes out the story of the seduction and coercion of the German people which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say, “the Nazis mangled Christianity beyond recognition.” (86)
While we’re covering mine-field-type topics, friend, I have to say I struggled with Rebecca’s chapter on homosexuality. She commits more decisively that I ever have in her interpretation of the scriptures. It’s clear to her: the scriptures ban homosexual activity.
I feel uncomfortable because I can still hear your voice asking, “do you judge me?” It’s clear to me: I do not judge you. But it’s less clear to me what God would say.
I read the passages mentioned and note the prohibited acts of homosexuality listed in a long string of sinful acts, acts that degrade and harm others, acts like slave-catching. I believe the Bible states that man and woman were created to be in relationship with each other in order to better understand our relationship to God. But I’m not the only Christian who longs to ask God, but what about the woman and woman who commit to being in relationship with each other? Is the love they find in their covenant no less a glimmer of your covenant with man, God? In other words, is there a way they could still find their way to you, God, through the love they find in each other?
Finally, I struggled with the last chapter. “How Could a Loving God Send People to Hell?” Yes, I believe he creates and he can take away. He can love us and judge us. And I believe he will. But, as I said to you, old friend, I don’t believe he’ll condemn you without first using every means possible to draw you close to him again. I can’t believe he’ll give up on you.
I’m no match for your questions. So often when you ask them you seem angry. And you seem hurt. So I take a slower approach, one that attempts to reassure you of God’s love. And Rebecca’s writing is laced with the love of God poured out for all mankind. But she throws it back at you too.
Perhaps you’ll walk away with even more questions. I’m sure she’d love to hear them.
Go ahead. Try her book. Don’t give up your search.
*The term “friend” I use in this post addresses several friends who have asked me difficult questions about my faith and Christianity over the past several years.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.